Sixteen. Seventeen. Eighteen.
"What are you going to do?"
Tenten glanced at her teammate and back, half-distracted with keeping count of her progress. "Um…stop at a hundred bull's-eyes, then we're back to deflection training, right?"
"No. At the next Chuunin Exam. What are you going to do?"
Twenty-two. Twenty-three. Twenty-four.
She didn't miss a beat, beginning to alternate kunai, senbons, and shuriken once she got past twenty-five. "A little early to start planning for that, isn't it? We still have four months."
"I'm not planning. I'm asking if you are."
"Well, no, not yet. Why?"
Forty-one. Forty-two. Forty-three.
Neji didn't say anything for a moment. At fifty, Tenten began throwing three at a time, one for each target.
"The next Exam is in Suna. The shinobi there will be like the one you fought."
Sixty-six. Sixty-seven. Sixty-eight.
Tenten turned to face him, hearing all three targets rattle with the sudden increase in her force. "You don't think I can do it?"
"I know you can." Tenten felt her face go blank at the unexpected show of faith. "But not if you continue only doing this."
Seventy-five. Seventy-six. Seventy-seven.
She turned back to the targets, now watching the falling leaves with a keen eye and pinning each one to a target when it reached the right altitude. "I happen to like this," she countered. "This is how I fight."
Eighty-eight. Eighty-nine. Ninety.
"Tenten." Slowing her pace, she turned her head to look at him again. He had come closer when she wasn't looking, and now met her gaze in earnest. By the smallest degree, his voice quieted. "You shouldn't be defeated like that again."
Ninety-seven. Ninety-eight. Ninety-nine.
Tenten paused and sighed quietly, a little touched in spite of herself. "I know," she murmured.
But suddenly Neji wasn't looking at her face anymore. His eyes had come to focus on her throwing arm, the hand of which was gripping the last kunai. The bandages had come a bit unraveled from the constant movement, revealing traces of the angry red burns across her skin. Frowning, he looked up at her again, no doubt noticing the cut on her cheek.
"I didn't give you those."
"Oh - no, you didn't. They're from training yesterday." His frown shifted with confusion, and she smiled mysteriously, eying her last target. "I'm trying something new."
The last kunai flew.
Chapter 4: Presence
"Hey, Sakura-chan, is he here yet?"
"You could just open your eyes and look…" An exasperated sigh. "No, he's not, Naruto."
A sleepy yawn. "Now?"
"…What about now?"
"Ow! I was just asking!"
So the morning ritual began.
Sasuke sighed, finding little motivation to join in. He was more concerned with standing as still as possible, so as not to aggravate the still-burning cuts on his arms and legs from the day before. Getting out of bed that morning was an experience that he wouldn't care to repeat.
Kakashi-sensei was late this morning, as usual. And Sasuke's teammates were as patient as they usually weren't. Normally, he would have gone about his usual routine as well, closing his eyes and honing his ability to tune them out. But today was different.
He was vaguely aware of Sakura moving to stand next to him, brushing her hands off. "They're still going?" she asked, and Sasuke nodded. Sakura made an appreciative sound. "They haven't stopped since we got here. I didn't even know anyone used this section before our time slot."
Sasuke didn't say anything. He only watched.
The two shinobi had apparently sparred together for much longer and much more often than Sasuke had originally thought. They moved with and played off each other with the sort of ease that was only won over time and persistence, never hesitating between blows, never showing a need to stop and plan their next move.
Sasuke wasn't horribly fond of Hyuuga Neji, but even so, he couldn't deny that in this setting, he was an image of power. His movements were the signature of his clan, quick and precise and devastating, requiring little movement. In contrast, Tenten never seemed to stop moving. She looked like a dancer against his stillness, moving in long and sweeping arcs that took her airborne at every chance, her feet hardly ever seeming to touch the ground.
The two had seemed to be in the middle of some sort of exercise when Team 7 had arrived, something that required Tenten to throw wave after wave of projectiles for her teammate to deflect. Not long after, they had begun sparring in earnest, which was making for quite the show.
Needless to say, Sasuke didn't really mind the wait.
Hardly a minute after he'd had the thought, Sasuke rose to attention, signaled by a familiar spark to his senses. It looked like the wait was over. He glanced back, a glimpse of silver telling him that he was correct. Sasuke smirked. "You're late."
"So it would seem…" Kakashi-sensei replied, effectively making Naruto jump ten feet in the air and nearly giving Sakura a heart attack.
Recovering just as quickly, the two whirled around to point accusing fingers at their sensei. "Kakashi-sensei, you're late!"
"There's an echo somewhere…well, anyway. I was on my way here, and I passed by some children harassing a turtle. Naturally, I had to intervene…"
"Hm…well, that aside. It looks like they're finished, so shall we begin?"
Looking up, Sasuke found that the spar between Tenten and Hyuuga had indeed come to a halt, probably thanks to Naruto and Sakura's outbursts. Now Gai's pupils were exchanging a few words while they collected what was theirs. Hyuuga finished quickly, only a fraction of the scattered weapons actually belonging to him, and nodded a farewell to his teammate before vanishing into the trees. Tenten remained behind, collecting every last blade and storing them all away.
She was just finishing as Team 7 approached, pocketing a last handful of kunai before making her way towards them, heading for the entrance where they had been waiting. Sasuke didn't have to look to know when her eyes found him; the sound of her stifling a chuckle was telling enough. She would have to be blind not to notice how stiffly he was walking.
Just before they passed, she murmured, "I told you…"
"I listened," Sasuke muttered back, absently taking out a kunai in preparation for whatever Kakashi-sensei had planned.
"Obviously not that well," she countered with sparkling eyes, almost - almost - looking sympathetic. In passing, she glanced down at the kunai he held, then lightly tapped his hand. "Grip."
Shooting her a dry look, Sasuke begrudgingly fixed his hold on the kunai. She returned the frown in a mocking exaggeration, then gave a good-natured shake of her head. "See you."
Then she had passed him, and his team had reached the grounds, and Kakashi-sensei was giving them their instructions while Sasuke idly switched between his old grip and the new one.
He pretended not to notice Naruto and Sakura gaping at him all the while.
"Here, Lee. I got you mint chip this time - you said that's your favorite, right?"
Lee didn't speak for a moment, or even turn over to look at her.
"Thanks, Tenten. I'm not very hungry right now."
"Oh…okay, that's fine. I can just leave it with Hanako-san, and you can ask her for it whenever she checks in for the doctor. I'm pretty sure she said there was a freezer in the lounge."
"How are you feeling?" Tenten tried after a moment, reaching out to rest a hand on his shoulder. Lee flinched.
"They tried another procedure this morning, but…"
He didn't have to finish. Tenten gave his shoulder a gentle squeeze. Only one other time, just after she herself was out of the hospital, had she seen it get to him like this. She knew he would bounce back-he had to, he always did-but it didn't make it any easier to witness.
"They'll find a way, Lee. They have to," she said, and felt him slowly tense under her fingers.
"…Please stop saying that, Tenten."
Tenten felt a tug of panic in her chest. If there was one thing Lee didn't do, it was give up.
Her grip tightened. "I won't."
After another hanging silence grew too long, she lowered her eyes. "Do you want me to go?"
She felt the effort it took him to swallow. Then, without lifting his head from the pillow, he nodded.
"Okay." Letting her hand linger on his shoulder for a last moment, she finally let it slip away, getting to her feet. She gathered the two ice creams she had brought, making a note to drop one off with Lee's nurse before it melted, and headed for the door.
"I'm sorry." His voice was the softest she had ever heard it, and she paused, wondering what right she had to feel like crying right now.
"We're here for you, Lee," she said finally. "Both of us. Neji doesn't visit as often, but he asks about you. Every week." She took a deep breath to keep her voice steady. "He hasn't given up on you, and neither have I."
Lee only curled up a little tighter.
"Sasuke. Stay behind a minute."
For a moment, Naruto and Sakura stopped too, as though they were the ones Kakashi-sensei had addressed. An annoyed glare broke Sakura from her curious pause, and she grabbed Naruto by the wrist and all but dragged him away.
Kakashi-sensei waited until a bit after they'd disappeared around the corner to lean calmly against the nearest target post. Sasuke fisted his hands in his pockets, waiting.
Slipping his book into a pocket, Kakashi-sensei lifted his eyes to meet Sasuke's.
"How is it?"
Sasuke's face twitched into a frown. "How is what?"
One silver eyebrow lifted. At the same moment, he felt a familiar crackle of heat at his neck, answering for him. He lowered his eyes, feeling moody all of a sudden. "…It's fine."
"No problems?" Kakashi-sensei pressed, sounding for all the world like he was just asking if it was supposed to rain today. Immediately Sasuke's mind flashed to the week before.
The sight of her defying gravity in his family's clearing, like he always had, the rush of heat, spreading over his skin, power pumping through his veins, the desire for nothing but to take the invisible wings she'd wrought and tear them apart--
Sasuke swallowed hard.
"Good." He didn't like the way Kakashi-sensei was looking at him, like he could see right through him no matter what he said. After a moment, though, Kakashi-sensei pushed away from the post. "And you know to come to me if there are any mishaps…"
Sasuke nodded. When his sensei turned to leave, he exhaled, letting his eyes slip shut.
"Oh, and one more thing." Reopening his eyes, Sasuke found that Kakashi-sensei had paused to glance back at him. "Whatever you're doing, pace yourself. Your accuracy has improved since our last session, but…" He paused, as though searching for the right words.
"…But?" Sasuke prompted when the silence stretched too long.
Another second, and Kakashi-sensei's thoughtful expression abruptly switched, his visible eye curving in what his team recognized as a smile. "Well, frankly, you're moving like an old man."
Sasuke's eyebrow visibly twitched.
Kakashi-sensei chose that moment to disappear.
Tenten knew she was in trouble when they both appeared at once.
One she could handle. At least one of them seemed pretty reasonable as long as Sasuke wasn't around, and the other one could at least be avoided by darting into the nearest building. But that wouldn't work on both of them at once.
And the way they froze when they saw her, the quick whisper from one to the other, and then the brisk resolve in their step when they approached her could only mean--
"Tenten-chan!" She winced.
Slinging her bag of groceries up higher on her shoulder, she turned, forcing a smile. "Ino, Sakura…ah…what brings you here?" The fact that it was the most traveled street in Konoha notwithstanding.
"Oh, we were just in the neighborhood," Ino answered, waving a dismissive hand. "I was just telling Sakura-chan here about that fight you had with Sasuke-kun yesterday."
"Oh…yeah?" Tenten said weakly.
"Mm-hm!" Ino chirped. "And it made us curious - of course you know, normally Sasuke-kun won't train with anybody! So, ah…how'd you get him to?"
Tenten blinked. "I…asked?"
"How?" Ino demanded.
"What exactly did you say?" Sakura jumped in.
Tenten looked between the two helplessly for a moment before giving them an honest answer. "…'Do-you-want-to-fight…?'"
A gust of wind blew through an empty second, the faces of both girls going deadpan.
"…Okay, you asked," Sakura said finally. "What else?"
"Sasuke-kun won't train with just anyone," Ino chimed in again, "especially with girls, everyone knows that."
"Actually, I didn't know--"
"So you must have done something, right? Did you bribe him?"
"No, she couldn't have bribed him, Sasuke-kun hates that…"
"Wait, you and Sasuke-kun were talking about something earlier!" Sakura interrupted, epiphany written all over her face. "Was that it? Oh! Was that why he was so stiff today?"
"Ahh, poor Sasuke-kun!--Wait, he talked to you?" By the look on Ino's face, Tenten may as well have said that she was an incarnate of the First Hokage. "Since when are you friends with Sasuke-kun?"
"Well, I don't know if we're exactly friends…"
Both girls froze in a simultaneous gasp, and Tenten immediately realized her mistake.
"…Oh. Oh, no, no!" she backpedaled, instinctively lifting her hands to avoid conflict. "No, I'm not saying we're…I-I just meant I don't know him that well, a-and he…there's this technique, and we, er, I-"
"What are you doing?"
All three of their heads whipped in the direction of the new voice. Tenten's face blanched. "Sasuke…"
But it didn't look like the question was directed at her. Sakura and Ino both flinched under the gaze they worshipped, blushing. Immediately they cleared their throats, one looking up while the other turned her eyes to her feet.
As they began hastily producing reasons for their interrogation, Sasuke caught Tenten's eye, then subtly jerked his head in the direction of an opening in the crowd. Tenten's eyes widened. He was telling her to go…he was acting as a diversion!
With a quick nod, she crept back from the younger girls until she was out of their line of vision, then pressed her hands together and mouthed a thank-you to Sasuke before making her escape across the rooftops.
"How did you know?"
"Naruto tried to do the same thing," Sasuke murmured, absently flipping a kunai from his old grip to the new one and back again. "He made it obvious."
From the corner of his eye, he caught Tenten grinning faintly at the new habit he seemed to have picked up. "Your team really looks out for you, don't they?"
Sasuke snorted with distaste. "Not exactly." She chuckled lightly, and they lapsed into an easy silence.
It was starting to feel more natural for Sasuke to come to this clearing, despite the years of letting himself forget that it existed. It had been the first place he could think of after making his own escape from Sakura and Ino - he'd had so much practice by now that it was second nature - and that was where he'd caught up with Tenten.
"So," she piped up after a moment, clasping her hands under her legs, "now what?"
Sasuke lifted an eyebrow. "What?"
"Well, you obviously just saved me from certain death," she said matter-of-factly, though her eyes held a teasing spark. "So as a rule, I'm indebted to you. What do you want?"
It took Sasuke a grand total of two seconds to think it over, as this led quite well into what he'd been about to bring up anyway.
"A rematch," he said simply, switching to the correct grip on his kunai and pitching it into the bull's-eye of the target above her head. "Tomorrow."
"Tomorrow, huh?" Tenten bit her lip thoughtfully, reaching up to take the kunai from its target. "I don't know…you won't be up to speed yet from those cuts. That gives you a handicap," she pointed out, tossing the kunai back to strike a target a few inches off to his side.
Sasuke shot her a dry look. "You think I'll have a handicap."
"I know you will."
After a moment, Sasuke wrenched out the kunai once more. "Fine. Then tomorrow," he threw it back again, this time at twice the force, "no weapons."
He didn't bother to hide his satisfaction when the knowing grin vanished from her face.
Then a competitive glint sharpened her eyes. "Fine." The kunai was removed from her target yet again, only to strike his own bull's-eye so hard that the target rattled against the tree trunk. "Then the next fight has to be nothing but weapons."
Sasuke's eyebrows briefly lifted with the stakes, but he gave a crisp nod. "Fine."
The glint in her eyes only intensified. "Fine."
Pulling the kunai out one last time, Sasuke got to his feet, unable to contain a smirk at the thought of the challenges ahead. When Tenten stood as well, Sasuke pitched the kunai downward, driving it into the ground to mark the location. "Tomorrow, then."
Tenten nodded, her face mirroring his own satisfaction with the plan. "Tomorrow."
And as soon as they had parted ways, Sasuke closed his eyes, took a deep breath, and forced the curse back down.